How Professor Gareth Barkin created a study abroad program that blew his students' minds.
By the time the plane touched down in Jakarta, Indonesia, Lizz Marks ’18 had lost all conception of time. Perhaps, she thought, that was for the best. Lizz and several other students from the University of Puget Sound had left Seattle at 2 a.m., and arrived two days later. “There was just this moment of elation, of everything materializing and becoming real that we were actually there, but also feeling very unreal,” she says.
The travelers were students in Professor Gareth Barkin’s Southeast Asia field school course. They tumbled out of the airport into a cab, and careened through the huge, sprawling capital of Indonesia. “I had never been in a nation where the traffic is like that,” Lizz says. “There are three lanes on the freeway, but at least four lanes of cars plus motorbikes zipping around through everything.”
The effect of the time change and the continuous motion was like having each student close their eyes and spinning them around three times. When they opened their eyes, they were standing at the threshold of their rooms, greeting the Indonesian roommates who would live beside them for three weeks. They had been anticipating this moment all semester, and yet had no idea what to expect. “It was very surreal at first, realizing that we were there, and everything was just beginning,” Lizz says.
As a cultural anthropologist, Gareth approaches study abroad with the goal of fostering a “more global, less ethnocentric” worldview in his students. In the past 10 years, he’s planned and led seven trips to Indonesia, most recently with help from the Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE), and he’s given a lot of thought to short-term, faculty-led study abroad models. With semester-long programs, prerequisites can lay a foundation for language and cultural context, but with short-term programs, language presents a challenge. Without the ability to engage with locals, how can students build the cross-cultural relationships that shatter preconceptions?
Over the years, Gareth has tried to solve this conundrum through three different models of immersive cultural experience. He writes about this in his article “In the Absence of Language: Modeling a Transformative Short-Term Abroad Experience.” One of his first trips, in 2009, was created on what he calls the “cultural tourism” model, with activities designed to familiarize the group with Indonesian history and culture. His students coined the term “temple blur” to describe that experience. Another trip Gareth led was what he calls the “mobile classroom” model: an intensive, for-credit course that took place entirely in Indonesia. But without wider context, the cultural setting essentially became a backdrop for the course.
Then Gareth hit upon a new idea. The “extended semester” model incorporates study abroad as a course component rather than an isolated experience. During the spring semester, students study Indonesian history, environment, and cultural norms. They acquire basic language skills and conduct library research as a framework for an ethnographic research project. Then, in the summer, they travel to Jakarta and Central Java for a three-week period of intensive experiential learning, cultural collaboration, and individual research work.
Initially Gareth hired local university students to act as peer advisors, translators, and guides. This turned out to be the most essential element of the extended semester model, as it broke down language barriers and gave students vital assistance with their ethnographic projects. Still, Gareth wanted to go deeper.
For this year’s trip, he partnered with YSEALI (Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative) to find intellectually minded Indonesians to join the course as full participants. He got more than 3,000 applications and narrowed those down to 10, to match his 10 students. Most of the YSEALI participants were recent university grads, and some were preparing for master’s programs abroad.
“It was amazing,” Gareth says. “The connections were a lot stronger and better and quicker than I’d ever seen before.”
The syllabus covered topics such as Islam, gender, nationalism, and environmental policy. “The collaboration worked on every level,” Gareth says. “We got many different perspectives and really engaged conversations.” And, he notes, it wasn’t just the classroom discussions that added depth—the Puget Sound students and Indonesian participants were living, eating, and traveling together. They were developing real friendships.
The group began their days with coursework, and in the afternoon, small groups ventured out with an ethnographic field exercise, such as interviewing women about religious fashion, or observing social and economic class divisions in the use of green space. The group learned about the use of sustainable, natural fabric dyes through a batik workshop, and they spent three days in a rural village, placed in homestays.
The immersive experience made a big impression on Lizz, who noted that cross-cultural bonding often happened around food. The Indonesian friends would help the group order, and everyone would share. “I learned to eat a whole fish off the bone with my hands,” she says. True to local custom, she even ate the eyes.
Austin Colburn ’18 approached the trip with a different perspective. Though he’d never been to the Philippines, where his maternal grandparents were born, there was something oddly familiar about Indonesia. “I’ve always wondered where I fit in, between being Asian and being white,” he says. “It was weird to be in a place where everyone looked like members of my family.”
Even so, Austin recognized his own biases. He had expected the Muslim participants to be more conservative, and was surprised when women who wore the hijab described it as a personal choice, a mode of expression. “They took a very liberal stance on what it’s like to practice religion, and what it means to express yourself over there,” he says. “The perspectives that the younger participants brought forward definitely showed that Indonesian views on gender identity and gender roles are very fluid and flexible and changing, at least in Jakarta and Jogja.”
Austin’s research project focused on ethnic othering, and his new friends were highly valuable resources. “They knew the local feelings and trends a lot better than I would have been able to on my own,” he says.
Indonesia is one of the more ethnically diverse countries in the world, and the YSEALI participants reflected that. One of the participants was from Aceh, North Sumatra, a special province that practices Sharia law. Others, from Lombok, were dance graduates focused on culture and the arts. Gareth says the personal perspectives they shared broke a lot of stereotypes, including his own. “I wound up learning much more than I normally do in this program,” he says.
For Lizz, the most surprising thing about the experience was how close everyone got. They found they could relate to each other across and within cultural differences, and they had fun together. She’s keeping in touch with her Indonesian friends, and feels that the YSEALI partnership was what made the whole experience so meaningful. “I think ‘humbling’ would be the most pertinent way to describe it,” she says. “Going in not really having any expectations, and being totally blown away.”